Apparently, I have been going about happiness all wrong. I have spent the greater part of my life trying not to bother people.
This is a grave mistake.
It turns out that the secret to happiness is to be as irritating as possible.
The New York Times recently emerged with a series of articles about how to be happy.
The secret to happiness is not wealth. It is not love. Nor is it to sit alone in your home nervously tapping one foot and pondering your mortality, as I had long assumed.
No, the key to happiness is to bother people.
Consider the evidence.
Conservatives are consistently happier than liberals. This is not merely because they are conservative. They are more often married than liberals, the Times reports, and married people are happier than their single counterparts. (At any rate, they say they are when surveyors telephone their homes.) Conservatives are more often religious, and religious people are happier than their doubting counterparts. (There is nothing like the idea that you and all your works will inevitably vanish into dust and nothingness to cast a pall over your Thursday.)
More than that, the 26 percent of people who self-identify as moderates are at the absolute bottom of the happiness barrel. It’s those who call themselves Extremely Conservative or Extremely Liberal who are the happiest. Moderation, as Oscar Wilde said, is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess. Shades of gray make you miserable, unless they come in multiples of 50.
So I’m up a creek, as a moderate singleton with no religion to speak of (which is to say that I’m Episcopalian; for us, Hell is not so much the separation from God as the nagging fear that you are using the wrong fork). Episcopalianism offers all the benefits of believing in nothing at all, but you still have to go to church once a week.
And this cuts into time that I should be spending having experiences.
These same studies say the other secret to happiness is to spend money — not on yourself but on other people and on experiences. Or better yet, experiences for other people! For instance, you can buy your mother-in-law a surprise one-way ticket to a remote island. She may not like it much, but think how happy it will make you!
This explains why so few of us are happy. Spending money on other people is difficult.
There is almost no gift that does not imply something negative. Give your daughter a Weight Watchers membership, and she refuses to speak to you for months.
Give her value packs of deodorant and instead of being excited at the potential for years of deodorant savings, she sniffs under her arms and looks mistrustfully at you.
Get down on one knee and give your girlfriend of seven years a miniature glass unicorn in a tiny jewelry box, and even though she loves miniature glass unicorns, she spits in your eye, spends several hours on the phone with her mother, and when you get back to the apartment all her clothes are in a box.
But all this data point to a larger problem.
If you trust all these studies, the happiest person of all is a married, religious person with extreme political views who is frequently found giving himself the invaluable gift of “experiences” and sharing them with others. In other words: a pill.
Sit next to this ideally happy person for an hour and I defy you not to wilt a little. “President Obama is letting the movement down,” he says, loudly. His T-shirt seems to be very passionate about politics. “Want to see pictures of the time my wife and I went to Australia, stroked a wallaby and climbed down a waterfall? We will treasure that experience forever.”
The reason the rest of us are less happy than we might otherwise be is that we have to listen to that person’s vacation stories and sit behind his bumper-sticker-bedecked car at long red lights.
The person doing the annoying is always happier than the person being annoyed. Late people are so much jollier than the ones who have to wait for them. The neighbor blasting music at 3 in the morning always seems to be in a far better mood than you are when it wakes you up. Those newlyweds draped lovingly over each other on the subway always seem so much more cheerful than the person next to them, whom in the throes of passion they keep elbowing in the ribs.
It is not that these people are so happy as that the people who have to put up with them are distinctly miserable.
But the secret of happiness has always been elusive. Even the ancient thinkers missed it.
Wisdom is the most important part of happiness, said Sophocles. Well, that, and the not-accidentally-killing-your-father-and-marrying-your-mother part.
But perhaps, when it comes to happiness, the only thing more important than wisdom is a little well-placed ignorance. For instance, when I am walking down the sidewalk in a new outfit and people keep pointing and smiling, I am much happier in the ignorant assumption that I have selected a really great ensemble than when an old lady catches my elbow and murmurs, “Miss, do you realize that your skirt has gotten tucked into your underwear?”
No, ignorance is the key to bliss.
That, and not being surrounded by happy people.